What Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could learn from Ron Paul
Today in "English sentences I never thought I would write": I think Nancy Pelosi has a point.
Speaking in a closed-door meeting with her fellow Democrats on Wednesday, the speaker of the House criticized members of her party for their public in-fighting. "You got a complaint? You come and talk to me about it. But do not tweet about our members and expect us to think that that is just okay."
While Pelosi didn't use any names, it was painfully obvious that she was referring to the "Squad," Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), four freshmen who have distinguished themselves as much for their attacks on fellow Democrats and their petulance towards the party's leadership as they have with their uncompromising progressive positions on a wide range of issues and their ubiquitous social media presence.
It's hard to have much sympathy for the Squad here. Letting your chief of staff compare members of your own party to segregationists — especially colleagues who have managed to win election in competitive districts won by Donald Trump in 2016 — is not how you make friends and influence people in Washington. AOC and her coevals might be okay with this. One could argue that they do not need the support or admiration of the wider Democratic caucus in order to accomplish many of their goals. "All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world," as Pelosi herself put it. But it makes no sense to do everything in your power to alienate other Democrats and then complain about "bullying" — much less make spurious accusations of racism against the speaker of the House — when the leader of your party asks you to shut up. That's what party leaders are for.
Maybe AOC should give old Ron Paul a call. In his long and enchantingly bizarre congressional career, Paul distinguished himself by voting against his party more frequently than some Democrats. But he nearly always did so without attacking his fellow Republicans publicly. He certainly never went out of his way to antagonize Dennis Hastert. He made his quixotic stand and even managed to find a handful of kindred spirits — he was good friends with Dennis Kucinich and Barney Frank throughout his time in the House — on the other side of the aisle.
Eventually Paul's efforts paid off. No sooner was Barack Obama elected than the weird goofy Founding Fathers iconography that had previously been part of Paul's outsider presidential campaign — including references to the Boston Tea Party, the anniversary of which was the occasion for an online fundraiser that broke various records — spread throughout the GOP caucus. All the effluvium of the Bush-era Republican party — "compassionate conservatism," No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D — was ignored. Republicans became the party of Thomas Jefferson and Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard; grown-ass adults wore tricorn hats and handed out pocket constitutions. Noise was made about auditing the Federal Reserve, and a return to the gold standard looked like it was around the corner.
The Squad should take heart from all of this. As things stand, their actual rhetorical victories in the course of the current presidential campaign are nothing short of astonishing. Who would have guessed 10 years ago, when there was nearly universal bipartisan support for the kind of border wall proposed by Donald Trump, that decriminalizing illegal immigration, giving free health care to undocumented Americans, eliminating the Electoral College, and Medicare-for-all would be embraced by frontrunners for the Democratic presidential nomination? There is no reason to think that if Trump is elected to a second term, Democrats will not move further to the left in an attempt to define themselves against the lame duck in the White House.
It is worth pointing out that the Paulite takeover of the GOP disappeared more or less overnight with the rise of Trump. House Republicans who were LARPing as Martin Van Buren in 2010 are now talking in Bruce Springsteen clichés and bemoaning the plight of forgotten workers in the post-industrial Midwest. One of the last real Tea Party holdouts, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, quit the Republican Party just last week, apparently astonished that none of his colleagues had ever really believed it.
This is how things go with political parties. These factions exist for their own sake, not to serve as vehicles for this or that tendency or ideology. The career of a genuinely principled backbencher like Paul is bound to be a lonely one. Ocasio-Cortez and her allies should prepare themselves for this reality. Prudential alliances with less high-minded members are valuable. They also require, well, prudence.